Book Summary: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

Book Cover for Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

This is a summary of Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall. While the book’s long title is overstated, it is a helpful introduction to geopolitics.

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Key Takeaways from Prisoners of Geography

  • Geography explains many differences between countries and significantly affects geopolitics.
  • Countries’ borders often depend on natural geographical features, which make it easier to defend from invasion.
    • For example, Korea has been invaded many times throughout history, because its geography offers few natural defensive lines. Japan, by contrast, has never been successfully invaded.
    • Russia and China expanded up to their natural geographic barriers to better defend themselves from invasion.
    • One reason for the conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Pakistan is because the country borders were arbitrarily drawn by Europeans and don’t reflect how people living in those areas actually organised themselves.
  • Water resources are crucial:
    • Rivers can facilitate trade, but not all are easily navigable. The greater Mississippi basin in the US has more miles of navigable river than the rest of the world put together, whereas Africa’s major rivers don’t join up and flow through waterfalls.
    • Reliable access to sea routes is essential for any country dependent on imports or exports. This is why China is investing heavily in a Pakistani port and why Russia annexed Crimea.
    • Rivers flowing across countries can create tensions relating to water security. One example is Ethiopia ability to control the flow of the Nile into Egypt.
  • Maps can be misleading:
    • Africa is much, much larger than it appears on standard 2D maps.
    • A country’s habitable area may be much smaller than its borders suggest. Huge swathes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example, are desert. Around a third of Brazil is covered by jungle, and the majority of people live along the coast.
  • Geographic factors beyond maps also play a role:
    • Some land is not well-suited for agriculture. People have cut down parts of the Amazon for farming, but the soil is so poor it only lasts for a few years.
    • Tropical climates in Africa increase the spread of infectious diseases.

Detailed Summary of Prisoners of Geography

[A few notes:

  • In this summary, I’ve focused on how geography has impacted a country’s history or foreign policy. The book also covers some historical background unrelated to geography. While this is useful context, the explanations are rather shallow given the scope of the book (it’s a 277-page book, including maps, and each chapter is less than 30 pages). So I’ve largely omitted that background in my summary.
  • This summary is organised in the same way that the 10 chapters of the book are. However, some of the countries Marshall covers in the regional chapters (e.g. Africa, the Middle East), I’ve omitted altogether for brevity.
  • I haven’t included the maps in the book for copyright reasons. But you should be able to follow along using Google maps.]

1. Russia

Over 75% of Russia’s population lives on 25% of its landmass (the side closer to Europe, west of the Ural mountains).

From the Grand Principality of Muscovy, through Peter the Great, Stalin, and now Putin, each Russian leader has been confronted by the same problems. It doesn’t matter if the ideology of those in control is czarist, Communist, or crony capitalist—the ports still freeze, and the North European Plain is still flat.
— Tim Marshall in Prisoners of Geography

Geographic boundaries

Moscow is located in the middle of the North European Plain. It used to be vulnerable to invasions from multiple sides, but as the Soviet Union expanded its territory (west — to include Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia; south — towards the Caspian Sea; and east — up to the Ural Mountains), it became better insulated.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia regained independence. Russia grows uneasy the closer these countries get to the European Union (EU) and to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This is partly why Ukraine is important to Russia—its land acts as a buffer between Russia and Western Europe.

Russia is particularly keen to control the North European Plain at its narrowest point in the west, in Poland, as that is the easiest point to protect from an invasion.

Ports and sea routes

Russia does not have a warm-water port that can access global sea-lanes. The ports at Murmansk and Vladivostok freeze over for months each year. Crimea has a major warm water port in Sevastopol, which is why Russia annexed it in 2014. Control of Ukraine would help Russia maintain access to Sevastopol.

In wartime, Russia will not be able to reach the Atlantic Ocean because parts of the routes are controlled by NATO members.

Oil and gas

Russia is the second-biggest supplier of natural gas in the world (the US is the biggest).
Countries that depend more on Russian energy (e.g. the Baltic States) are less willing to criticise Russia. So the US therefore wants to supply Europe with liquefied natural gas (LNG) to weaken Russia’s influence.

2. China

The vast majority of China’s population has always lived in the North China Plain, which is a flat, fertile area with two large rivers. The two rivers are the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, linked by the Grand Canal in around 600 CE.

Geographic boundaries

Like Russia, China expanded up to its natural geographic barriers to better defend itself. Today, China’s borders are largely secure. China and India have relatively few border disputes, despite being two large countries with a shared land border, because the Himalayas run across Tibet’s border with India. China’s most vulnerable borders are its land border with Vietnam and sea border with Japan.

Xinjiang and Tibet are relatively new additions—Xinjiang was added in the 19th century and Tibet only in 1951.

Tibet is important to China because if India controlled Tibet, it could invade China much more easily. It’s also important because China’s three great rivers (Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong) all flow from Tibet.

Xinjiang is important to China because it borders 8 countries, acting as a valuable buffer zone. It’s also a key land route, essential to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. Other reasons Xinjiang is important is because it has oil and China’s nuclear testing sites are located there.

Ports and sea routes

Economically, China may be on its way to matching the US, but militarily and strategically it is far behind. Historically, China has not been a naval power because it didn’t need to be. It had multiple land borders and its coastal trading partners were not far away.

China wants to secure shipping routes so they are available during wartime to ship both Chinese exports and oil and gas imports, on which China is dependent. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are all US allies, and they control the narrow Strait of Malacca through which millions of oil barrels pass each day. That is why China is increasingly assertive in the South China Sea (the East China Sea is too close to Japan and Taiwan, both US allies).

China is also building its relations with countries like Pakistan and Burma as it wants to rely on their ports. It’s been investing heavily in Gwadar, Pakistan.

3. United States

Geographical advantages

Much of the land in the US is fertile and the greater Mississippi basin has more miles of navigable river than the rest of the world put together. Moreover, many of its rivers run smoothly over vast distances without encountering waterfalls or rapids. Water transport is much cheaper than land transport, so this helped facilitate trade. The increased connections in turn encouraged America to unify.

As a united country, the US is easy to defend from invasion as there is a lot of strategic depth for defenders to fall back to. Attackers would also need incredibly long supply lines to approach via sea or through Canada and, to some extent, Mexico. Mexico’s border with the US is almost entirely desert and largely uninhabited, which acts as a buffer zone. Due to the disparities between the two countries, the US would be able to invade Mexico across it, but not the other way around.

The US expanded/united rather quickly

Given how big it is, the US united quickly in just over 100 years.

By 1732, the original 13 colonies along the east coast were all established, bounded by the Appalachian Mountains to their West. The British government prohibited settlement further west in order to keep trade (and taxes) on the east until America gained independence in 1776.

In 1803, the US doubled in size after the Louisiana Purchase. For $15 million, the US purchased from France a large area west of the Mississippi River (further west of the Appalachians), in what is now the American heartland.

In 1819, the Spanish ceded Florida in the Transcontinental Treaty. Both countries also agreed that the US had jurisdiction on the west above the California/Oregon border, while Spain had jurisdiction in the area below. This gave the US territory up to the Pacific Ocean.

When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, its land included what is now Texas and part of California. The US then encouraged its citizens to settle on both sides of the US-Mexican border and, in the Texas Revolution of 1835-36, the Americans drove the Mexicans out of Texas. In 1846-48, they pushed the Mexican border further down, close to where it lies today.

Global superpower

After WWII, the US wanted greater control of the world’s sea routes, which would require forward bases and coaling stations. The British sold almost every naval base they held to the US in exchange for 50 warships.

In 1949, the US formed NATO, which granted it further access to bases held by Iceland, Norway, Britain and Italy (all founding NATO members). The US then turned to form alliances with Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea, extending its geopolitical power.

US foreign policy is likely to change in the coming decades for two reasons:

  • As US becomes a net exporter in oil and gas, its interest in the Middle East is likely to diminish.
  • The children of Hispanic and Asian immigrants to the US are likely to focus the US’s attention on issues in the Latin America and Asia over Israel.

4. Western Europe

There are lots of countries in Western Europe because there are many mountains, unconnected rivers and valleys (unlike, say, the US).

For example, Spain couldn’t really expand north into France because of the Pyrenees, and the Balkan region has many small states because it is so mountainous. (The area is a battleground with the EU, NATO, Russia and Türkiye all vying for influence).

Geographical advantages

Western Europe has a favourable climate for growing crops, thanks to the Gulf Stream. That helped to support large populations and food surpluses allowed people to specialise in other stuff. There are also relatively few earthquakes, deserts, volcanoes and mass flooding.

This is partly why Northern Europe is richer than southern Europe—the south has fewer coastal plains suited for agriculture, but more droughts and natural disasters. France in particular has the largest expanse of fertile land in Western Europe and many connected rivers, and is relatively flat.

Britain also has fertile land, decent rivers, and excellent access to the seas. It’s also protected by its natural boundaries but is close enough to the continent to trade. The GIUK (Greenland-Iceland-UK) gap north of the UK gives it a strategic advantage as it’s one of only two paths for north European navies to access the Atlantic (the other being the very narrow English Channel). This is one reason why the UK government was concerned about the Scottish independence movement.

By contrast, Spain’s narrow coastal plains have poor soil and its rivers are short, which limits access to markets. Greece similarly has few coastal plains. Instead, it has steep cliffs along its coastline and its rivers don’t allow for transportation. Access to the Aegean Sea helps with trade, but Türkiye lies on the other side and the two countries have fought multiple times. So Greece spends a lot on its military and navy.

Germany and France

France’s natural barriers are the Atlantic Ocean, Pyrenees, the Alps and the Rhine. But it is unprotected at its border with Germany.

Germany and France had been wary of each other ever since Germany unified. The European Union was set up so that the two countries would get along. In that sense, it has worked very well, especially for Germany, which became Europe’s manufacturer.

If the EU fragments, it would threaten the decades of peace in Europe since WWII.

5. Africa

Africa is really, really big

On a standard map, Africa might not look much larger than Greenland, but it’s actually 14x larger! The continent is also 3x larger than the US.

The standard 2D Mercator map makes countries/regions further from the equator look larger than they really are. A globe is more accurate. The animation below shows the difference between the Mercator projection and the actual relative size of each country.

Map showing difference in country sizes between standard Mercator map and an accurate projection

By Jakub Nowosad – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s helpful to think of Africa in two parts:

  • The top-third is mostly covered by the Sahara and the Sahel, and is majority Muslim.
  • The bottom two-thirds are much more diverse—linguistically, culturally and geographically.

Geographical disadvantages

Africa’s natural harbours are terrible because much of Africa’s coastline is smooth. Its rivers aren’t that useful for trade because there are so many waterfalls and none of the great rivers (the Niger, Congo, Zambezi, or Nile) connect with each other. Most of the continent is also cut off from the Eurasian landmass by the Sahara Desert and surrounding oceans.

Though humans trace our origins back to Africa, most of the land was not suitable for growing wheat or rice, and its animals were not suitable for domestication. [See also my summary of Guns, Germs and Steel, particularly “Why were all domesticated animals in Eurasia?”]

The climate also favours many infectious diseases like malaria, yellow fever and HIV, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Arbitrary borders

There are 56 countries in Africa. European countries drew many of the dividing lines based on how far their power had extended, so the lines don’t reflect how Africans living in those regions wanted to organise themselves. To this day, these arbitrary borders exacerbate ethnic conflicts and cause civil wars.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is neither Democratic nor a Republic, is a prime example. It is bigger than Germany, France and Spain combined and has more than 200 ethnic groups. The DRC was a Belgian colony from 1908 to 1960, but Belgium did nothing to help it develop and instead just stole its natural resources. Civil wars began immediately after the Belgians left.


Egypt is protected by deserts on three sides. It is one of the most densely populated countries of the world because everyone lives within a few miles of the Nile. One reason why Egypt has never been more than a regional power is because it hardly has any trees, so couldn’t build a great navy.

Most of Egypt’s water comes from the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. Egypt’s relations with Ethiopia are currently tense because Ethiopia just built the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This gives Ethiopia control over the flow into Egypt.


Europe, America and China are all heavily involved in Africa because of its oil and precious metals. Nigeria and Angola are the two biggest oil-producing countries on the continent. Both have been badly mismanaged and riven by conflict.

Nigeria’s economy is the largest in Africa, followed by South Africa. South Africa’s location gives it access to two oceans, natural sources of gold, silver and coal, and climate and land suitable for farming. It is also one of the few African countries without malaria.

6. The Middle East

The Arabian desert is the largest sand desert in the world, covering most of Saudi Arabia and parts of various other countries. Most people live on the periphery.

Arbitrary borders

Like Africa, the country borders in this region are artificial ones that the Europeans drew and don’t reflect the geography. In 1916, the British and French divided the Middle East between themselves under the Sykes-Picot agreement (named for the two diplomats who made it). The borders are still relatively new and have caused a lot of conflict.

For example, Iraq is a relatively new country. In ancient times, it was divided into three regions: Assyria, Babylonia and Sumer. Later rulers and empires (including the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Umayyad dynasty, and the Ottoman Empire) similarly divided the area into three administrative regions.

Another example is Kurdistan. Kurdistan is not a sovereign-recognised state, but a mountainous, geographically defined area spanning Türkiye and the northern parts of Syria, Iraq and Iran. Significant numbers of Kurds live in that area. They had been promised their own state in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), but this treaty was never implemented. If the Kurds do try to establish an independent country, there could be conflict. But the Kurds themselves are also divided.

Examples of geography shaping foreign policy

Israel is so small it has nowhere to fall back to if its defences are breached. One reason why Israel wants control of the West Bank is because there’s a mountain ridge running along it, which gives a military advantage to whoever controls the ground either side of it.

Syria poses a threat to Israel because it wants direct access to the coast. If Syria can’t get there via Lebanon (which was historically part of Syria), its only option is to cross the Golan Heights, which Israel seized in the 1967 war.

Iran‘s mountain ranges and southern swampland make it hard to invade, but also hard to connect up. Iran therefore has many distinct ethnic minorities, with no more than 60% of the population speaking the dominant language (Farsi).

Saudi Arabia and Iran both have ambitions to become the dominant power in the region. Saudi Arabia is much bigger and richer, but its population is significantly smaller. Iran has the benefit of controlling the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf, through which around 20% of the world’s oil passes.

Türkiye borders three seas and is a key country for NATO because it can control Russia’s ability to enter and exit the Black Sea through the Bosporus Strait. Türkiye also links up Europe with the Middle East, the Caucasus and the central Asian countries.

Turkey is determined to be at the crossroads of history even if the traffic can at times be hazardous.
—Tim Marshall in Prisoners of Geography

Technology vs geography

Technology can overcome geography in some ways, but remains limited by it in other ways.

For example, while the US can operate drones in the Middle East from offices within the US, it still needs to maintain good relations with countries in which it houses its fleet of drones. The signals from the US also need to travel through underwater cables and satellites to get to their destination, and those cables/satellites may be controlled by other countries.

7. India and Pakistan

India and Pakistan have fought four major wars with each other and still occasionally skirmish along the border. Both have nuclear weapons.

Nepal and Bhutan are both poor and landlocked. Bangladesh is not landlocked, but suffers regular flooding from the Bay of Bengal.


The Indian subcontinent is too large and diverse to have strong central rule. Even today, New Delhi does not truly control India nor does Islamabad truly control Pakistan.

Their linguistic and cultural diversity is partly due to climactic differences and rivers. Populations centres today are along the rivers. The British also allowed regional autonomy and played local leaders off against each other.

Britain’s departure

Britain’s departure in 1947 was messy. The British left abruptly after announcing the area would be split into the two independent dominions of India and Pakistan.

Riots broke out in both countries in the ensuing chaos and power vacuum. At least 1 million people died and 15 million were displaced. Millions of Muslims headed west to Pakistan, while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed east to India.

India got the better deal in the split, with most of the major cities (including Calcutta), industry and taxable income base. Pakistan, on the other hand, got an agricultural base and a volatile border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan was divided into two non-contiguous regions—West Pakistan and East Pakistan—separated by 1,000 miles of Indian territory. In 1971, East Pakistan rebelled and, after much bloodshed, became Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has 160 million people and 80% of the country is on a floodplain. If climate change causes the water levels to rise much higher, the country may well go under.

Diversity in Pakistan

Pakistan is an acronym: Punjab, Afghan (Pashtuns), Kashmir, Sindh and Tan (as in Baluchistan). These are five distinct regions and groups, and marriage across them is still uncommon. This makes it hard for Pakistan to create a sense of national identity. Kashmir and Baluchistan both have some form of independence movement.

Punjabs are dominant and make up about 60% of the population. The other groups resent this.

Baluchis make up less than 5% of Pakistan’s population but Baluchistan covers almost 45% of the country and holds much of its natural gas and mineral wealth, as well as the coastal city of Gwadar. (Recall above that China has been investing heavily in Gwadar.)

India and Pakistan continue to fight over Kashmir, which lies partly in each country. Kashmir is important because it provides a link into central Asia and China. Controlling Pashmir would also help with Pakistan’s water security, because the Indus River passes through the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir.

Pakistan vs Afghanistan — another artificial border

The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan (the 1893 Durand Line) splits up the Pashtun region. But Pashtuns in Pakistan have more in common with Pashtuns in Afghanistan than with Punjabs in Pakistan. This is why parts of Pakistan aided the Taliban.

Pakistan also needs to be friendly with Afghanistan so that they have an area to fall back to if India ever invades.

8. Korea and Japan

Defensive geography

For centuries, Korea has been a target for invasion by the Mongols, Chinese, Manchurians, and the Japanese. There are few natural defensive lines along the entire Korean peninsula so if invaders cross over the Yalu river in the north, or land from sea, it’s hard to fend them off. It therefore tried to isolate itself in the 18th century, earning the nickname the “Hermit Kingdom”.

Japan, on the other hand, has never been successfully invade. Its distance from the Eurasian landmass makes it hard to invade, and the Russian landmass close to it is inhospitable.

North Korea stalemate

North and South Korea are still at war. Many countries aren’t happy with the current situation, but worry that other courses of action will make matters worse.

  • The two Koreas want to avoid a hot war that ends with their capital cities in smoking ruins.
  • China doesn’t want to support North Korea, but they’re also worried that a united Korea would allow US bases in what is now North Korea, so close to their border.
  • The US doesn’t want to support South Korea, but they can’t afford to be seen abandoning them.
  • Japan knows whatever happens will likely involve them, given their long history with Korea.

There has been limited serious planning for what will happen if the two Koreas do unite. Developing North Korea from scratch would still hold South Korea back for a decade. While North Korea has rich natural resources, such as coal, zinc, copper and iron, the gap between North and South Korea is massive. It’s far greater than the one between East and West Germany before reunification. East Germany at least had an industrial base and educated population. South Korea’s economy is around 80x stronger than North Korea’s, and its population is about twice the size.

Japan’s geographical disadvantages

The landmass of Japan is bigger than France or Germany, but around 75% of it is not inhabitable (mostly due to mountains). Only 13% is suitable for intensive farming.

Japan has plenty of water but its rivers are unsuitable for navigation and trade, because they aren’t very flat and few of them join up to each other.

The country also lacks many of the natural resources required to industrialise (e.g. coal, oil, natural gas, rubber, metals). It is the world’s largest importer of natural gas and third-largest importer of oil.

Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands

The fight between China and Japan for the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands is not just for pride. The islands form part of the Ryukyu island chain, which any hostile power must pass through on the way to Japan’s heartlands. They also give Japan a lot of territorial sea space, and might contain exploitable underwater gas and oil fields.

9. Latin America

The total population of Latin America is 600 million, yet their combined GDP is equivalent to that of France and the UK, who have a combined population of only 120 million.

The area of Brazil alone is larger than the area of the EU, but its geography is much poorer.

Poor connections

European colonialists concentrated on the coasts, because the focus was on getting wealth out of each region and into foreign markets. They didn’t bother to invest in the interior, which (like Africa) had lots of mosquitoes and diseases. Latin America’s coastline is therefore often called the “populated rim”.

However, the population centres in Latin America are poorly connected with each other. The continent’s coastlines have few natural deep harbours, which inhibits trade. In Brazil, the Grand Escarpment—comprised of massive cliffs—dominates much of the coast. One estimate suggests that New Orleans itself can handle more goods per year than Brazil’s 7 largest ports combined. And while the Amazon River is navigable in parts, the land around it makes it difficult to build upon.

The Andes, which run broadly north-south for 4,500 miles, is the longest continuous mountain chain in the world. They are mostly impassable, cutting off the western regions from the east.

National borders

Spain and Portugal divided Latin America between themselves in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Independence movements then began in the early 1800s. Many of the newly independent countries broke apart but, by the end of the century, the borders of the countries today were mostly set.

There are still a few border disputes today, but the growth of democracy has meant that these are relatively minor or at least handled diplomatically.

Wealth disparities caused by geography

There are significant wealth gaps between the highlands (mostly European descendants) and lowlands (mostly indigenous peoples).

The Southern Cone makes up the area east of the Andes and in the lower third of South America. It is relatively flat and temperate, and has some of the most prosperous regions on the continent. Argentina has quality land that could make it rich—a hundred years ago, it was one of the top 10 richest countries, ahead of even France. But it needs to get the economics right.

Other countries don’t have such geographical advantages:

  • Bolivia is among the poorest Latin American countries, because it is landlocked. It lost a large chunk of territory to Chile, including 250 miles of coastline, in 1879. Relations between the two countries are still frosty today.
  • Much of Mexico‘s terrain is mountainous and rugged, which inhibits development.
  • Around a third of Brazil is jungle. Brazilians have cut down parts of the Amazon rainforest to convert to farmland, but the soil is so poor that it only lasts for a few years before they have to move on to other land. Below the Amazon, the savannah has been successfully converted to agriculture, but only thanks to relatively recent technology.

US relations

Latin American countries do not necessarily have great relations with the US. The US has been interfering in Latin America since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, and many Latin Americans don’t like the results. But some countries have better relations with the US than others.

Panama, for example, is very friendly with the US, which safeguards its Panama Canal. Mexico similarly does not have a capable navy and relies on the US navy to secure its sea routes from the Gulf of Mexico.

However, the flow of illicit drugs from Mexico to the US causes some strain between the two countries. Before the 1990s, Colombian cartels smuggled drugs into the US via sea and air routes . After the US closed down those routes, the cartels opened up a land route through Mexico and used their power and money to infiltrate and corrupt the Mexican police and military.

10. The Arctic

The countries most interested in the Arctic are those on the Arctic Council:

  • 5 of those countries have borders on the Arctic: Canada, Russia, the US (via Alaska), Norway and Denmark (via Greenland);
  • the 3 other members are Iceland, Finland and Sweden; and
  • 12 other countries, including Japan, India and China, have Permanent Observer status.

Interest in the Arctic is growing

Arctic ice is definitely receding. Some climate models suggest the Arctic will be ice-free during the summer by the end of the century, or even sooner.

Countries’ interest in the Arctic is increasing because of:

  • Shipping routes. Cargo ships can now get through the Canadian archipelago for several summer weeks per year without icebreakers. One route from Canada to China via the Arctic is 40% shorter than going through the Panama Canal, which saves fuel costs.
  • Oil and gas. It becomes easier to access natural gas and oil reserves in the Arctic as ice melts.
  • Precious metals. Same as above.

Countries are also building up their military capabilities in the north. Russia is far more invested in the Arctic than the US is. It has 32 icebreakers, 6 of which are nuclear-powered. The US only has one. [Makes me think that the example of Canada inefficiently making icebreakers in How Big Things Get Done wasn’t as silly as Flyvbjerg made it out to be.]

Sovereignty claims

There are currently various legal disputes and claims over sovereignty in the Arctic Ocean. Russia and Norway, for example, have a dispute over the Svalbard Islands. Even the US and Canada dispute oil and water access rights in the Canadian archipelago.

However, this scramble for the Arctic differs from the earlier scrambles for Africa, Middle East, and India in the original Great Game because international laws today are much more mature, and most of the countries involved are more or less democratic. The terrain is also pretty treacherous, so there’s a greater need for cooperation. So perhaps the Arctic will be different.

My Review of Prisoners of Geography

I think many people (including myself) underrate the importance of geography simply because we haven’t lived in that many places. It’s also a general feature of human psychology that we notice headwinds more than tailwinds, so we find it hard to understand how different life might be if we’d grown up in a country with insecure or arbitrary borders, less access to trade routes, or a more treacherous, infectious disease-ridden climate.

Even looking at a map doesn’t tell the full story. On a map, a warm water port looks just like a port that freezes over during winter, and it had never previously occurred to me that there can be such a strategic difference between the two. Similarly, you can’t tell a steady, navigable river from a river that crosses waterfalls on most maps, yet the difference each makes to trade is obvious once you think about it.

I expect some will accuse Marshall of oversimplification or geographic determinism, like people have accused Guns, Germs and Steel. The book’s subtitle, “Ten maps that explain everything about the world” (emphasis added) doesn’t help its case. But that is clearly an exaggeration and Marshall says as much:

Geography has always been a prison of sorts—one that defines what a nation is or can be, and one from which our world leaders have often struggled to break free.

Of course, geography does not dictate the course of all events. Great ideas and great leaders are part of the push and pull of history. But they must all operate within the confines of geography.
— Tim Marshall in Prisoners of Geography

To my mind, “prisoners of geography” seems fairly apt. It’s a prison, not a straitjacket. You could debate the precise size of the cell and, on rare occasions, countries may even break out. As Marshall points out, technology can help overcome geographical constraints, but: (1) technology is pretty recent—early humans in temperate regions had a definite head start; and (2) even then there’s a cost.

That said, I did have a few criticisms of Prisoners of Geography. First off, for a book about geography, the maps weren’t as good as I’d hoped. Many times I had to look online for maps that better illustrated the points Marshall was making.

Secondly, Marshall’s writing could have been clearer. For example, he writes: “The former revolutionary Sandinista firebrand now finds himself accused of being on the side of big business.” In context, Marshall seems to be talking about Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega. But there’s no previous mention of Ortega being a Sandinista firebrand before, or even what “Sandinista” means. A quick Google reveals that it’s a left-wing party in Nicaragua, but that’s hardly common knowledge. Subheadings would have also helped mark the shifts between countries or topics.

Lastly, I was annoyed by the lack of footnotes, which made things unnecessarily difficult to verify. For example, Marshall says that when NATO stopped Afghan farmers from growing opium, many responded by supporting the Taliban. But how many is “many”? And how strong is the evidence of the causal link? Could there have been other factors at play? There is a bibliography, but it only has a few sources per chapter. It’s already hard to trust authors writing about geopolitics, and Marshall didn’t make it any easier.

Despite my quibbles, I found Prisoners of Geography well worth reading as an intro to the “geo” side of geopolitics. If nothing else, it made me look at maps far more closely than I’d ever done before.

What did you think of my summary of Prisoners of Geography? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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2 thoughts on “Book Summary: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

  1. Fascinating topic. I think learning more about geography and how it shapes societies differently is a strong exercise in empathy. Does the book touch much on how geography impacts culture or other aspects of the local population?

    1. That’s an interesting way of putting it. I hadn’t thought about it in that way but I think you’re right about the empathy point.

      The book focuses more on foreign policy than on culture. For example, the reasons why “Russia” might want a warm water port are not necessarily understood or shared by the general populace, so I’m not sure geography affects culture *directly* like that. But geography does affect history, and history affects culture, so I expect an indirect link still exists.

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